DALLAS - Van Simpson has carved out two narrow pathways in his overstuffed garage. The old stoves, mismatched chairs and stained microwaves are the detritus of three sons who've come, gone and come back again.
The Simpsons, of McKinney, Texas, aren't the only parents still waiting for an empty nest. The recession, fewer job openings and shifting social norms are more visibly pushing college graduates back to Mom and Dad.
Almost one in seven parents say grown children have moved back in with them this year because of the economy, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.
The migration - decades old but highlighted by the economic downturn - breeds a new kind of parent-child dynamic, sometimes more harmful than healthy. Filial dependency, stunted maturity and even siphoned savings can outweigh the benefits of renewed family bonds.
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"There was a time I would have thought 25 years old is too old to live at home," said Laura Simpson, Van Simpson's wife, who was married with children by that age. "But it's different now," she said, winking at her 25-year-old sitting across the fireplace in an armchair. He blushed.
"It's not something you plan as you're trying to start life as an adult," said Stephen Simpson, who added to the garage heap when he moved back into his parents' home this summer. He had struggled through 30 interviews after graduating from Texas A&M University-Commerce with a math degree in May. He gave up on job hunting, settled into a spare bedroom and started graduate school at the University of North Texas.
He has plenty of company. About 30 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds live with their parents, according to 2008 census data. The Network on Transitions to Adulthood calculates that the number of young adults living with their parents has gone up 50 percent since the 1970s.
The phenomenon even has its own lexicon: words such as "boomerang kids," "adultescence" and "quarter-life crisis."
The needy-child stigma has faded, said David Morrison, the president and founder of Twentysomething, a consulting and research firm that focuses on young adults.
"It's become a steppingstone to long-term independence," said Morrison, who has been credited with coining the term "adultescence."
He said the trend spikes during economic downturns, but has grown since the 1991 and 2001 recessions. At that time, "parents thought they failed children and nobody talked about moving home," Morrison said. "Over time, kids moved out again and they seemed the better for it."
The United States is relatively unusual in its early independence. Young adults in Hispanic, Asian and Eastern European cultures often live with their parents until they're married.
The cultural acceptance in the U.S. has been exacerbated by a heightened financial awareness among 20-somethings, Morrison said. Young adults are increasingly conscious of their monetary situation and discuss it with parents. And whereas their parents might have held on to one job for the duration of their work life, today's college graduates are more likely to bounce through several.
Robin Meredith's mother invited her back when the 29-year-old lost her advertising job in September.
"I resisted it for a while, a loss of independence, pride thing going on," said Meredith, who traded her Addison apartment for her mother's split-level in Arlington. She sacrificed late-night callers and free cable for the ability to work toward a health care degree.
Angela Bell, a 58-year-old federal employee, said the arrangement "feels like roommates" and gives her a chance to get to know her daughter as an adult. The two drew up a proposal involving rent and ground rules. They even negotiated Meredith's dog. The daughter won.
The prodigal homecoming may be more harmful than unwanted pets, warned Joseph Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who has just co-written a book on the difficulties of ending adolescence.
"We have let the tables get turned in a way that isn't good for anybody," he said. "We are so eager to nurture kids that we never challenge them and ask them to grow up."
Moving home has even greater consequences now with the potential to rupture parents' dwindling retirement savings, he said.
"The key is not to let kids get the sense that it's a free ride," Allen said. "They're in partnership. They pull their weight."
Beverly Renkes sees a middle ground, especially in a perilous economy. It isn't mooching; it's a safety net, she said. Her two 20-something sons, one a mechanical engineer and the other an accountant, have jobs but live at home.
"I've seen so many of my friends' kids get into debt in the last 10 years, and I don't want them to start out that way," said Renkes, a Dallas accountant.
They help with the dishes and pay for their own phones and car insurance. On weekends, they buy her lunch.
"It's quite a unique experience when the bill comes and one grabs it and puts the credit card down," she said. "We have a totally different relationship now."
But the situation is soothed by its transitional aspect. One son is moving out this month, and the other is considering it.
"We were empty-nesters once for about four months," she said. "It will be fine when it happens again."